Native American Boarding Schools

Written by Shirley Parker
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Native American Boarding Schools are largely run today by religious groups providing education, shelter and health care for the children of families living in great poverty on the reservations. High unemployment, with its resulting despair and alcoholism among adult males, is the way of life on the reservations in many states, including South Dakota, Arizona, Oklahoma and elsewhere. Some schools are attempting to recreate family units for the children, so their emotional wounds can better heal while they achieve academically. It is a difficult responsibility and a labor of love, since additional funds are always needed. (Very few tribes anywhere receive funds from casino operations.)

A few Native American boarding schools were set up at the request of tribal elders. One of these is Theodore Roosevelt School near Fort Apache, Arizona. The original students were Navajo, then Apache. Today, children from many tribes attend the boarding school. Another boarding school set up at the request of a chief, and named after him, is Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Still vibrant and growing, it's no longer a boarding school, but continues as the focal point of education for the children of Pine Ridge Reservation.

Other early Native American boarding schools were a disastrous attempt by the federal government to kill the Indian and make him over as a white man. Whitewashing what happened would involve rewriting history, something that is unacceptable. Beginning in 1870, the program involved, often forcefully, taking children far away from families and forbidding them to speak their native languages. Their hair was cut short, relatives weren't allowed to visit, and children were told their parents had either died or no longer wanted them. If the children disobeyed any of the rules that they could barely understand, they were severely beaten. Many children died of abuse, homesickness, suicide, and white man's diseases for which they had no immunity. A few graduates found success in the white man's world but many found they were not accepted in either culture.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs' Position Today

The year 2000 represented the 175th anniversary of the BIA. A speech then given by Kevin Gover, Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs details the ghastly truths of the part the agency played in the U.S. Government's ethnic cleansing and destruction of Indian cultures. Gover stated that by accepting the legacy of inhumanity, the bureau also accepts the responsibility of "putting things right." It will be many years before the damage from wounds deliberately inflicted on Indian children and their ancestors can be overcome, but it is hoped the healing has begun.

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